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Craft Beer Fest L.A. was hopping

May 10, 2009 |  6:34 pm


Surprise, surprise – L.A. is fashionably late to the party. But the city knows how to make an entrance. Such was the refrain of the drinking song warbled in rounds throughout the Echoplex on Saturday during the first Craft Beer Fest L.A.

Steve Grossman, brewery ambassador for the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., said during a round-table discussion that, compared to Northern California,  Southern California is “lagging behind about 10 years” in beer and wine, but now that it’s arriving, “ it’s fantastic.”

L.A. is “the wicked stepchild of the craft beer world,” said round-table moderator Christina Perozzi, Beer for Chicks blogger and beer sommelier in residence at Rustic Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen in Santa Monica.

Birthday boy Josh Weatherman, at the festival celebrating his 29th with his wife, Jennifer Awrey, and friends, said that, coming from the rich craft beer culture of the Pacific Northwest, he had been searching for a similar passion in Los Angeles and was happy to sample the drafts at the festival: “It’s hard to find them anywhere.” Weatherman was thrilled to have found out about the festival just in time: “I was going to stay at the house and drink beer.”

At least one person was not at all surprised by the turnout (859 beer nuts, by the Echoplex’s count).  Larry James, of the Wine Warehouse’s beer department, told the round-table crowd, “I figured when everyone realized they could drink better beer, it would happen fast.”

Several members of the paying crowd, though expressing excitement about the festival’s existence and praising the beer selection, remarked on the heat and noted that Echo Park was just down the street. “If it was outside, it’d be a touch better,” Weatherman said as his wife wiped sweat from her brow.

An outdoors, nighttime event is the eventual goal of the festival's organizer, the Los Angeles Craft and Artisanal Beer Appreciation League, said member Ben Ling. For the first year, however, he and his colleagues decided to do an indoor event, initially expecting perhaps 300 attendees. There were logistical bumps: Until last week, LA CABAL thought it would have four pouring locations to spread out the 28 beers on tap; there were just two. Ling said that an hour into the festival, around 3 p.m., the lines were longer than he’d hoped, but said it was sorted out quickly: “People who showed up early probably had a rougher start.” Ensuring a quality experience for such a quantity of people was a tricky negotiation: “We’d rather have 500 happy people than 1,000 disappointed.”

By 1:30 p.m., half an hour before the doors were to open, the line of people wanting to buy tickets stretched more than a block. Amy Krider and Rich Shiba arrived at 3 p.m. and heard it would be a two-hour wait. They left, walked up the stairs from Glendale Boulevard to Sunset and had a few drinks at nearby El Prado. They returned at 6 p.m. and got into the festival quickly. Both expressed positive opinions about the festival and volunteer bartenders, but Shiba said he thought he’d have more opportunity to interact with the brewers. “It’d be awesome to go talk to the guys from Green Flash.”

Joe Moore said that he liked much of the beer selection but that some breweries, particularly Sierra Nevada, “could have brought rarer stuff,” noting that the two brews it brought (Summerfest, ESB) are often in grocery stores.

But other beers were rare indeed. TAPS Brewery’s two offerings included a barley wine not currently available at its two restaurants. Brewmaster Victor Novak said that, while TAPS keeps three of its beers on tap at all times, the rest rotate. He makes 40 different beers each year. “If you come in February and like the Thomas Jefferson, then you come back in December, you can’t get it. I only make that beer once a year.”

And many brews were quite new: Hangar 24, in Redlands, is just a year old. It brought an IPA and its Orange Wheat, which brewmaster Evan Price said has “hundreds of pounds of locally grown oranges macerated and thrown straight in the brew.” Price got into craft brewing on a tour of Europe, where he witnessed a diversity of beers he hadn’t seen stateside.

Beerfest3 But for most of the producers in attendance, the love of craft beer started at home. Round-table participant Ryan Sweeney, of Verdugo Bar, said he owed his involvement in the craft brewing culture to his father, from whom he stole his first beers: “He was not a BMC drinker – BMC means Bud, Miller, Coors.” Instead, his father drank Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada.

Mark Jilg, founder of the Craftsman Brewing Co.  in Pasadena (pictured at far right, with Novak, Grossman and James speaking), said today’s craft beer lovers owe a debt to Anchor Brewing Co. owner Fritz Maytag, who “brought us back to real beer.” Jilg got started by brewing at home while working for JPL. He encouraged the round-table crowd to make beer at home, saying that it would be not unlike the beers being poured at the bars behind them. “The only difference is the size of the pots you use.”

TAPS’ Novak got involved in craft beer for a specific reason: a girl. He said that, while he was majoring in political geography at UC Berkeley, his girlfriend was over at his apartment, looked in the fridge and said, “Your roommates drink good beer.” Later, while with the same girlfriend as she was in graduate school, he read Michael Jackson’s “The World Guide to Beer.” The course was set for him to become not a master but a brewmaster.

Novak said that L.A. has “an incredibly savvy beer populace” but that availability depends on “more restaurants opening their lists to beautiful beer.”

Sweeney called on attendees to get involved with online beer forums: “Write about these beers.”

Indeed, spreading the word was a major point with brewery representatives.  “People think beer is a chemical synthesized in a lab somewhere, some netherworld, and they don’t understand it,” said Jace Milstead, a revolutionary (yes, that’s his job title) with Firestone Walker. “They think of beer in two ways, that it’s really extreme or watered-down.”  He wants it understood that brewing is an art.

Mike Mellow, vice president of sales for Ballast Point, said: “The more people who drink local craft beer, the better it is for everybody.” And there do appear to be more and more people drinking craft beer. Statistics provided by the Brewers Assn. say the craft beer market is the only segment of overall U.S. beer sales growing.  Mellow notes that craft beer’s share of the market was 2% when Ballast Point started 12 years ago. It is now 5%, and Mellow said his company had its best sales month in its history in April.

Beerfest5 The appreciation of craft beer was evident from such festivalgoers as brother and sister Joe and Amelia Zupan (center and left, with Steven Bailey). He had flown in from Chicago for Mother’s Day. She lives in Hollywood. They heard about the festival and then, like good children, asked Mom if it would be OK to go to the festival on Saturday rather than come on down to Lake Elsinore. With her blessing, they had fun. Joe Zupan said of the event, “there’s not enough of these going around.” His sister said that beer events had been “severely lacking in L.A.” and that “this is an exciting moment for beer enthusiasts.”

There were hundreds of other people at Craft Beer Fest L.A. who would likely agree with her.

Most of the food went quickly. Pizza deliveries from Masa went especially fast. Scoops' frozen desserts and Library Alehouse's chips and salsa were gone by three hours into the festival. Later snacks included cheeses and custom beer nuts. All the food was donated by local businesses and charities

The live old-time music was fitting accompaniment, with many attendeesBeerfestgrinder taking a break from  lines to sit down up front and listen to such acts as Triple Chicken Foot, Los Muertones and Sausage Grinder (right, with lead singer Bobby Reed).

The merchandise booth with festival T-shirts and posters, plus books written by children involved with 826LA, the charity the festival benefited, kept busy.

Asked if the festival was a sure thing for next year, LA CABAL's Ling said but one word: "Absolutely."

-- Blake Hennon

Photos: Blake Hennon / Los Angeles Times